Woman’s breast cancer made her leave family and move abroad

A mother has revealed how rashly leaving her husband and moving abroad in a ‘Shirley Valentine’ moment turned out to be an early sign of breast cancer.  

Debbie Lees, now 61, left her comfortable family life in Manchester behind to work in Corfu as a travel rep in 2002 when she was 43. 

But soon after arriving, she found a lump in her breast, and was diagnosed with oestrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.

Debbie, from Glossop, Derbyshire, later learned that her cancer was hormone related – and that rash decisions and irrational behaviour are the first sign of the illness. 

Her diagnosis made her change her mind, and she and her husband, Anthony, got back together and have recently celebrated their 40 year anniversary. 

Debbie Lees, now 61, has revealed how rashly leaving her husband (pictured together) and moving abroad in a 'Shirley Valentine' moment turned out to be an early sign of breast cancer

Debbie Lees, now 61, has revealed how rashly leaving her husband (pictured together) and moving abroad in a 'Shirley Valentine' moment turned out to be an early sign of breast cancer

Debbie Lees, now 61, has revealed how rashly leaving her husband (pictured together) and moving abroad in a ‘Shirley Valentine’ moment turned out to be an early sign of breast cancer

She said: ‘I woke up one morning and I was sick of my old life; the routine and the drudgery. Until then, I’d always been happy with Anthony and my world revolved around my family.

‘But I felt so dissatisfied, I couldn’t explain it. I left my husband and my job, and I went to work in Corfu.

‘But whilst I was there, I found a breast lump. I had to fly back to the UK, and I was tested for breast cancer.

‘It was a huge shock. I moved back into the family home, but we were just friends. I wasn’t ready to be married again; my head was in a whirl.’

Debbie (pictured) left her comfortable family life in Manchester behind to work in Corfu as a travel rep in 2002

Debbie (pictured) left her comfortable family life in Manchester behind to work in Corfu as a travel rep in 2002

Debbie (pictured) soon after arriving, she found a lump in her breast, and was diagnosed with cancer

Debbie (pictured) soon after arriving, she found a lump in her breast, and was diagnosed with cancer

Debbie (left and right) left her comfortable family life in Manchester behind to work in Corfu as a travel rep in 2002. But soon after arriving, she found a lump in her breast, and was diagnosed with cancer.

She is now doing well and last November trekked to Everest Base Camp with a group of Breast Cancer survivors for charity

She is now doing well and last November trekked to Everest Base Camp with a group of Breast Cancer survivors for charity

She is now doing well and last November trekked to Everest Base Camp with a group of Breast Cancer survivors for charity

What is oestrogen receptor-positive breast cancer?

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Each year in the UK there are more than 55,000 new cases, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it strikes 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. Bu

Breast cancer develops from a cancerous cell which develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts. 

Patients with breast cancer cells will have cells taken out during a biopsy or surgery will be tested to see if they have certain proteins that are oestrogen or progesterone receptors.  

They’re then called hormone receptor-positive or hormone receptor-negative based on whether or not they have these receptors (proteins). Oestrogen receptive cancers are known as ER-positive, a term used because the American spelling of oestrogen is estrogen.

About 70 per cent of breast cancers are ER-positive, and they are responsive to hormonal therapies. 

Hormone balance is often seen as a key for preventing breast cancer,  incorrect levels of oestrogen, often a side effect of breast cancer, can cause, anxiety, tiredness and irritability – leading to a behaviour change.

Debbie was told her cancer was hormonal and that her mid-life crisis was most probably triggered by the changes in hormone levels.

She says: ‘It all made sense. The diagnosis made me realise what really mattered in life. Luckily Anthony could see I’d had a blip and that I really loved him.’

After a six-month split, the couple got back together, and Anthony cared for Debbie throughout her treatment.

But when doctors said cancer had spread and she needed a mastectomy, Debbie was horrified, because she had been born with a severe facial paralysis and had always vowed she would never undergo any further changes to her body.

Aged 20, Debbie married her husband, Anthony, and they had two children, Martyn and Charlotte. They are pictured on their wedding day

Aged 20, Debbie married her husband, Anthony, and they had two children, Martyn and Charlotte. They are pictured on their wedding day

Aged 20, Debbie married her husband, Anthony, and they had two children, Martyn and Charlotte. They are pictured on their wedding day

Debbie is pictured with her husband and two children, Martyn and Charlotte

Debbie is pictured with her husband and two children, Martyn and Charlotte

Debbie is pictured with her husband and two children, Martyn and Charlotte

Debbie said: ‘I told the doctors that I couldn’t have a mastectomy. I had spent my whole life living with a disfigurement, which had driven me to the edge.

‘I had always said I would never have any more surgery.

‘But when it came to the crunch, I realised I had to disfigure my body in order to save my life. I did it for my children and my husband.

‘I’m lucky that he forgave my mid-life crisis and he was there for me all through my treatment.

When doctors said cancer had spread and she needed a mastectomy, Debbie was horrified, because she had been born with a severe facial paralysis and had always vowed she would never undergo any further changes to her body. Debbie is pictured here as a child with her facial paralysis

When doctors said cancer had spread and she needed a mastectomy, Debbie was horrified, because she had been born with a severe facial paralysis and had always vowed she would never undergo any further changes to her body. Debbie is pictured here as a child with her facial paralysis

When doctors said cancer had spread and she needed a mastectomy, Debbie was horrified, because she had been born with a severe facial paralysis and had always vowed she would never undergo any further changes to her body. Debbie is pictured here as a child with her facial paralysis

‘This year we celebrated 40 years of marriage and the crisis certainly brought us closer than ever.’

Growing up, Debbie had 13 operations where tendons from her left foot were implanted into her face.   

‘The left side of my face was completely paralysed; it looked as though I’d had a stroke. But I had lots of tests and nobody knew what is was and why it happened’ she explained.

In November last year, she took part in a fundraising trek for Prevent Breast Cancer to Everest Base Camp, alongside 32 other survivors of breast cancer and their supporters

In November last year, she took part in a fundraising trek for Prevent Breast Cancer to Everest Base Camp, alongside 32 other survivors of breast cancer and their supporters

In November last year, she took part in a fundraising trek for Prevent Breast Cancer to Everest Base Camp, alongside 32 other survivors of breast cancer and their supporters

‘I was in and out of hospital as a child. I was teased a lot at school and the kids called me ‘lippy’ because my bottom lip stuck out and I could only smile with half of my face.

‘I got very upset and I would fight back. There were times when I was suicidal; I hated looking in the mirror. As a teenager, I was very self-conscious.

‘I never dreamed at all that I would ever have a boyfriend. I thought nobody could ever find me attractive.’

Debbie is pictured here while trekking Everest, 18 years after her diagnosis she is now raising money for breast cancer charities

Debbie is pictured here while trekking Everest, 18 years after her diagnosis she is now raising money for breast cancer charities

Debbie is pictured here while trekking Everest, 18 years after her diagnosis she is now raising money for breast cancer charities

But at 20, she married her husband, Anthony, and they had two children, Martyn and Charlotte.

‘Anthony would constantly tell me how beautiful I was and how he never saw my paralysis. He really gave me confidence’ she added. 

They had 22 happy years together before splitting for six months in 2002 – but they soon got back together following Debbie’s diagnosis.

In 2003, the mother had a radical double mastectomy and is still taking hormone replacement therapy. 

Debbie said: 'The trek was amazing, and it was a great way to give something back. I've learned to celebrate my mastectomy, just as I celebrate my facial paralysis.

Debbie said: 'The trek was amazing, and it was a great way to give something back. I've learned to celebrate my mastectomy, just as I celebrate my facial paralysis.

Debbie said: ‘The trek was amazing, and it was a great way to give something back. I’ve learned to celebrate my mastectomy, just as I celebrate my facial paralysis.

In November last year,  she took part in a fundraising trek for Prevent Breast Cancer to Everest Base Camp, alongside 32 other survivors of breast cancer and their supporters.

In total, the team raised an incredible £117,253.

Debbie added: ‘The trek was amazing, and it was a great way to give something back. I’ve learned to celebrate my mastectomy, just as I celebrate my facial paralysis.

‘I’ve started public speaking, talking about my paralysis and self-image in general. I’ve set up my own business, Travel Counsellors, and it has done really well. Everything is on the up.

‘Anthony and I celebrated 40 years of marriage recently and our relationship is so much stronger, because of what we have been through.’

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